Do you remember last spring? If you could call it that.
Fourteen inches of snow fell on our Isanti County hunting grounds in mid-April. My son Noah and I headed out in whites on Season A's Saturday morning.
We trudged through the heavy, wet, calf-deep snow to get to our spot. The turkeys weren't too interested in gobbling, moving or feeding. I was merely the guide and caller, but we hunted hard. One faraway gobble and the sighting of two hens were our only action.
The next morning, a good portion of the snow was gone from the farm fields, though the forest floors were still white. At midmorning we came oh-so-close to luring in a couple of big, fat jakes that were strutting and showing off for an indifferent hen feeding in a pasture.
Ultimately the shortbeards chose the old girl over my pleading calls, and the trio passed 60 yards out. Too far for a shot.
The boy had to go back to school Monday. That's when my tag for season B came in. More challenging weather — fog from all the melting snow — kept the birds subdued.
But Tuesday dawned clear and still, if a little cold. As I settled into the buttresses of a big old oak tree I love, dawn was just a wash of pink in the east. I was happy for the down vest I had on, and to be wearing camouflage instead of whites!
Hard work pays off in most endeavors. Four mornings in a row of rising in the pre-dawn darkness was taking its toll, but my fatigue was forgotten when that magical sound pierced the frosty air just as the cardinals started chirping.
2014 in Review
There were 48,204 permits issued during the spring turkey season last year, including 14,003 general/landowner permits for seasons A through C, 12,179 youth permits good all season, 4,899 archery permits, and 17,123 permits for the hunt's late time periods (D though H).
Hunters registered 11,447 turkeys, which was the third highest harvest recorded and right on the 5-year average. The winter of 2013-14 saw deep snow and extreme cold in portions of the turkey range. Some winter losses were reported.
For the second year in a row, and as many of us so well know, snow remained on the ground during much of the first and second seasons in some of Minnesota's turkey range. That likely affected hunter effort and turkey activity.
Despite that, we ended up with a pretty good report card between thunder-snow, blizzard-rain, gale-force winds, arctic cold and late leaf-out.
It's interesting to look at the makeup of our spring harvest. Zone 501 — the state's traditional turkey range in the hilly, woodlot-and-farmland southeast — led the way with 3,084 birds harvested
But the new kid on the block, Zone 507, came in with 2,875 turkeys killed. After that, the south-central region (Zone 503) registered 1,303 turkeys. Zone 508, the central farmland-woodland transition zone north of the Twin Cities, boasted 1,140 birds harvested. Turkeys are thriving beyond expectations there, and providing some great hunting.
After those four top harvest zones (501, 507, 503 and 508), we have two more units that also provided some exceptional turkey hunting. One is Zone 505, the Minnesota River corridor running generally westward across the state from the metro. With 1,033 birds, the harvest there passed the millennium mark! Metro zone (510) hunters brought in 903 birds, pretty respectable indeed.
One Expert's Snapshot
Tom Glines directs all National Wild Turkey Federation activities in Minnesota. He knows and loves Minnesota's turkeys, hunts them hard, and is committed to growing populations of the wild turkey in our state.
"The interesting thing about Minnesota," says Glines, "is that we've got so many different regions and kinds of turkey habitat."
"The southeast bluff country is some of our best habitat," he says, "but one issue we have is that it's really getting encroached upon. Everybody seems to want a cabin or a house in this beautiful country." Still, there are a lot of turkeys there. But we need to be vigilant in maintaining enough habitat.
"The southwestern part of the state is really on the NWTF's radar screen," says Glines. "Here, turkeys traditionally thrived in riparian (river and creek) corridors, where there were trees in pre-settlement times. There's no reason we couldn't bring trees back here. That's the limiting factor for the birds here.
"The biggest turkey surprise in our state as of late is north and northwest of the Twin Cities," says Glines. "There's plenty of forest and roost trees, with lots of agriculture mixed in. It's great for turkeys.
"The only limiting factor here is winter," he explains. "This is the area where deep winter snows combined with deep cold can kill birds."
Still, turkeys are tough. Really tough. "Studies show they can handle temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero, and that's actual temperature," marvels Glines. "It's deep snow that prevents turkeys from getting at food, and also makes birds burn too much energy moving around. Sometimes, winter birds will stay up in their roost tree for days on end to let bad weather blow through. Survival mode kicks in."
Back toward the Twin Cities, we have the Metro turkey zone. "I would like to see us go to a multi-bird format here where hunters could shoot more than one bird, because access is limited," says Glines.
Overall, Glines likes the current season structure.
"And I haven't applied for a turkey tag for 8 or 10 years," he laughs. "I just hunt a later, 'over-the-counter' season. Minnesota hunting is so good in May, especially the father north you go.
"I think other hunters feel that way too," says Glines. "Look at last year, when about 4,000 tags were given out statewide for each of seasons A, B and C. Season D alone had 8,000 tags bought over the counter!"
"But I do think there will be some season re-structuring within the next couple of years," he predicts. "It's business as usual this year. But the DNR is surveying hunters. I would bet by 2016 we'll see some changes to increase hunting opportunity."
2015 Season Structure
While the turkey hunt is still divided into eight segments, known as seasons A through H, hunters only need to apply for the first three hunts — A, B and C.
Those applications were due last January. But don't despair! Tags for seasons D, E, F, G and H are unlimited and available over the counter right now and on into the hunting season.
Here's more good news: As Glines says, some great hunting happens in the later seasons, especially that mid-May timeframe. The gobblers always seem to go on a second tear as the hens get bred and start sitting on nests.
If you want a lot of flexibility for when you hunt, buy an over-the-counter archery tag, which is good for the entire season from April 30 to May 28. This is a great solution for the hunter who has a little time here or there to hunt, and likes to wait for a day of perfect turkey hunting weather, such as those elusive dry, sunny and calm conditions.
Minnesota hunters still seem satisfied with the new structure of our turkey hunting units. In 2013, the units were consolidated from 77 hunt areas to only 12. That really opened up opportunities to try different spots within a larger zone.
Purchase your license in one of three ways: at one of 1,600 ELS-POS license agents throughout the state; through the Instant Licenses System at 1-888-665-4236).
We have a pretty neat opportunity for young hunters in Minnesota, and it goes a long way toward hooking young people on the great sport of turkey hunting. Any youth age 17 or under may purchase a license that is valid for any area and valid for the entire season, A through H.
This is a great opportunity for waiting out bad weather and being able to take your young hunter out at a better time. My son Noah and I took advantage of that all last spring. He has two years left on the youth plan, this season and next, and we plan to use it.
If you have a young hunter in the house, or a kid whom you think would like to go, get him or her a tag and take them out for a few hunts this spring.
To echo another one of Glines' insights, Minnesota is a composite of different landscapes when it comes to turkey country. Our wild turkey areas are all quite different from each other in habitat and turkey behaviors. With that in mind, here is a rundown of our major turkey hunting zones, including hunting strategies and the approaches that will make you successful.
501, Classic Southeast Hill And Bluff Country
This is where turkey hunting started in Minnesota. Spring turkeys hang out near ridgetop fields or valley bottom fields, feeding and strutting away the morning and afternoon hours. Midday is spent in sidehill oak timber. Set up in high-traffic turkey areas early and late in the day. Midday, find a nice glade of oak woods, put out a decoy, call lightly and be patient.
502, The Diminutive Zone
A small area dominated by the public Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. Hunting pressure can be noticeable there. Smart hunters call little, and set up in thick cover. The best time to tag a bird is midday, when other hunters, with all their calling, have left the woods. A gobbler might check out a couple of light yelps now.
503, South-Central Transition Country
This area is made up of rolling hills and woods in big-time farmland. Turkeys are more spread out, but there are fewer places for them to hide. Find the woodlots they like and you'll be in business.
504, The Prairie Southwest
This is where trees come at a premium. The key there is to find some cover the turkeys like — most often, along rivers and creeks. Scouting is key to success in the southwest. In the open habitat, use binoculars to pattern birds.
505, The Minnesota River Valley
This zone stretches from the Twin cities to the South Dakota border. Like 501, this is some classic Minnesota turkey country. Turkeys like the wooded bluffs along the river, dropping down out of their roost trees and working the open country and fields in the mornings.
506, The West-Central Prairies And Woods
More and more turkeys are showing up here, and pockets of good woodland and wetland habitat, next to the abundant agricultural land, will hold birds. The key to success is finding a flock and gaining permission to hunt. The birds are spread out and you need to find them.
507, The Prairie-Woods Transition
This is Minnesota's new turkey hunting hotbed. The ideal mix of woodlands, wetlands, fallow fields and agriculture makes for unmatched turkey habitat. The only limiting factor is the potential for bad winter weather.
508, Central Woods Zone
There are more and more good stories about turkey hunting that are coming out of this area of our state. To find the birds, locate the somewhat limited agricultural areas and scout hard. These birds are generally lightly hunted and can be very susceptible to calling.
509, The Far Northwest
Minnesota's newest hunting zone has turkeys all the way to the Canadian border. Do your homework and footwork to find the pockets of birds.
510, The Magical Metro Zone
The trick is finding a place to hunt. Network hard, and don't be afraid to ask to hunt! Parcels can be small and you might end up just putting up a blind and doing a lot of waiting, but the turkeys are out there.
Back to the gobbles that greeted my fourth morning in the woods.
The bird was only about 50 yards away, but last year's oak leaves still clung to the tree he was in, and I couldn't see him. After I made one pleading little set of yelps, he gobbled at me hard, and then again and again. He knew where to come.
A couple of wingbeats and a big thump indicated the bird was on the ground after another dozen gobbles. Soon a white turkey head bobbed through the woods. I clucked softly once to let him know all was good, and the bird began to veer my way a little more.
At 30 yards the gobbler got a little suspicious, but it was too late for him. It was not 10 minutes into legal shooting light, and I had a gobbler just like that. It was a pretty simple formula though: Just hunting hard had paid off again.
We came back later in the spring for Noah's tag, but that's fodder for another Minnesota turkey tale.